Indonesian public elementary school students leave school at the end of their classes in Jakarta on 1 August, 2012. Children in Indonesia, the worlds most populous Muslim country, wear traditional colorful clothes instead of regular uniforms during the fasting month of Ramadan and focus more on religious studies. (Photo: Romeo GACAD/ AFP)

Indonesian public elementary school students leave school at the end of their classes in Jakarta on 1 August, 2012. Children in Indonesia, the worlds most populous Muslim country, wear traditional colorful clothes instead of regular uniforms during the fasting month of Ramadan and focus more on religious studies. (Photo: Romeo GACAD/ AFP)

The Hijab in Indonesian Public Schools: Individual Rights vs. Identity Politics

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Regulating the hijab has long been a tool for both sides in Indonesia’s identity politics struggle.

On 3 February 2021, Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture, Ministry of Religion, and Ministry of Home Affairs issued a Joint Ministerial Decree regulating the dress code and  school uniforms in elementary and secondary  level public schools. 

It decrees that:

  • students, teachers, and staffs are allowed to choose their schools uniforms, with or without religious specificity or characteristics;
  • local governments and schools must provide an environment for students and teachers to exercise this right; 
  • local governments and schools are not allowed to issue any regulations that oblige, order, require, appeal, or forbid the use of school uniform and attribute them with special religious characteristics; and 
  • local government and school principals must revoke any regulation, decision, policy, and recommendation that goes against this decree. 

The province of Aceh is exempted from this decree on the ground of its political and religious specialty. Different from other provinces, Aceh, given its special autonomy, can enforce sharia law, including the mandatory wearing of the hijab (veil) by Muslim students.

As with recent government plans to ban the hijab in public offices, some segments of Muslim society already have objected to this decree. Cholil Nafis, an Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) leader, expressed his sadness and disagreement with this decree. On social media, he asserts that the obligation for female Muslim students in elementary schools to wear hijab is part of character building. This statement was then shared by more than a thousand people. Some decree critics even accuse the Indonesian government of becoming too secular.

The Ministry of Religion has rejected this accusation. What is prohibited, according to the vice minister of religion, Zainut Tauhid, is forcing students, particularly non-Muslim ones, to veil or not veil.

The recent Public Vocational High School (SMKN) 2 Padang case where non-Muslim students were “forced” to don hijab in school triggered this decree. In Padang West Sumatra, and other districts in that province, the regulation to don hijab is part of politics of identity. It is seen as part and parcel of the implementation of shari’a law. It began when the mayor of Padang issued a local regulation No 451.442/BINSOS-iii/2005 requiring all female Muslim students in Padang to wear hijab to school.

This case attracted national attention after the parents of one student objected to Public Vocational High School (SMKN) 2 Padang’s regulation school that all female students, including non-Muslim ones, must don hijab. The SMKN 2 Padang case coming to light then exposed that the prescription to wear hijab, regardless of the religious affiliation of the students, has been imposed in some public schools inside and outside of Padang for several years as well. The interest sparked by the SMKN 2 Padang case also led to the realisation that in a few of Muslim minority districts, such as Bali and East Nusa Tenggara, Muslim female students were banned from wearing hijab in some schools too

Many believe that this type of regulation that mandates or bans wearing hijab discriminates against the religious rights of many groups, is intolerant of religious minorities, and is in breach of the Indonesian constitution that protects religious rights and freedom of belief. This is why the Minister of Education, Nadiem Makarim, issued a video statement prohibiting this kind of practice followed by the joint decree signed by three ministers.

The hijab question has been part of the country’s modern political struggle. In the New Order era, the Soeharto regime prohibited female Muslim students from wearing it in public schools, and associated those who did with Islamism. Responding to this regulation,  in the 1980s, there were huge demonstrations for the right to wear hijab. As a result, female students finally gained the freedom to wear hijab. 

The hijab question has been part of the country’s modern political struggle. In the New Order era, the Soeharto regime prohibited female Muslim students from wearing it in public schools.

The pendulum swung the other way after the Reformasi in 1998. Hijab wearing has become a trend in Indonesia. It is not only worn for religious activities, but also in movies, sports, and public and private offices. Even in sports previously notorious for sexualizing women, such as billiards, hijab has become a common feature among female billiard players.

Looking at the current debate on “veiling” and “unveiling” in Indonesian public schools, it seems too strong to compare it with the strict laïcité  (secular) tradition in France, where the government bans all religious symbols in any public schools, including the veil for Muslims, turbans for Sikhs, and yarmulkes for Jews. 

The hijab is not just seen as head cover for female Muslims or an ornamental piece of clothing. It is imbued with religious and ideological meaning. It is a symbol of piety and submission to religion. It is even seen as a symbol of Islam itself. Female Muslims who do not wear it are often seen cynically as not devout enough or less Islamic. Even those who wear hijab, but don the short version, are often considered as “not-shar’i enough” (not following the standard of Islamic shari’a). This is why this veil has been transformed into an instrument of ideology. It has become part of identity politics as a means to differentiate between believers and non-believers, between those who are seen as struggling for Islam and those who are against Islam. 

In this broader context, the recent joint decree on hijab in public schools should contribute to reducing the politicisation of hijab and recast the issue of its wearing it or not as one of individual rights.

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